by Noelle Bray
At least that is what I told a classmate of mine in high school, upon learning that he was adopted. He looked at me and asked, “How can you be ‘sort of’ adopted?” I explained that my biological father had signed away his legal rights to me, and that my step-father had adopted me. What I did not know then was that this type of adoption actually has a name: Step-Parent Adoption or Second Parent Adoption. What I also did not know then was that second parent adoption or adoption by a relative, is actually more common than what the average person considers when they think of adoption—birth parents give up their child to be adopted by strangers. After I was adopted, the times I actually thought about what that meant were few. But, then, my experience as an adoptee probably has not been “the norm,” if there even is such a thing. Fast forward 12 years later, and I am in law school and have now nearly finished a class entirely on Adoption Law. The class has caused me to face all the various aspects of adoption, and in being an adoptee, that I had never dealt with before. I think it has been good for me, but I still find myself wrestling with some of the same issues I have had since I was adopted. For example, the one I exemplified in my comment to my high school friend—the feeling that I am only ‘sort of’ adopted. Even in high school, I felt that I needed to qualify my status as an adoptee, that my feelings as an adoptee would somehow be discounted or minimalized in the eyes of others because I still have connections to my birth parents. But I do still go through many of the same feelings and thought processes as those who are ‘actually adopted.’
When I was twelve years old, I remember standing in a court room, with other people present, and looking up at someone sitting in a raised area. I do not remember what questions exactly were asked, I just remember the judge, kindly, telling me that I could not just nod my head, as the nice person in the corner had to type what I say, and that person could not type head movements. By the end of the day, I was adopted by my step-father. I knew what was going on, as far as someone twelve years old can comprehend. I knew that my biological father would not have to worry about paying child support anymore (which I knew because, even then, I understood that he was having financial problems, was in debt, and had not paid any support in years). I had also been assured by my mother and step-father that my relationship with my biological father would not change—I would still see him and we could still talk on the phone, like always. Frankly, that was all I cared about. I understood that what was happening was the best situation for everyone, and so long as I still got to see him, I was happy for it to happen.
I did still see him; my parents kept their promise to allow me to maintain a relationship. Though today it is a strained relationship for a myriad of other reasons, I do still see my biological father when I see other members of that side of the family, like my (half) brother.
Intellectually, I have grown to understand the circumstances around the adoption that I could not have processed as a child. My biological father was having financial difficulties, which was a recurring problem. He had also recently gotten remarried to a woman with three daughters of her own, and then they had my younger brother. Her daughters’ father did not pay child support, so my biological father was supposed to support all five of us, at least in some form or fashion. He rarely met his child support obligations for me, even before he remarried, and he was thousands of dollars behind. As for the other half of the parental picture, I had always lived with my mother, and was so young when my step-father married her that I cannot remember life without him. They have always been “my parents” to all my friends, teachers, etc. My step-father has always been the one to take care of me, provide for me, keep me safe, and love me. He is the one I look to as a role model for guidance and advice. He has been my “father” since he met me. Given my biological father’s propensity for irresponsibility, especially financially, it became my parents’ concern that, should something happen to them, I and my inheritance from them would fall directly under his control, and that by the time I was old enough to take advantage of said inheritance, there would be nothing left. So, the intellectual reasons for my adoption were based on concerns of finances, inheritance, and security. Honestly, given what I know now, I believe that giving me up was the best decision my biological father ever made in regards to me.
Emotionally, it is not quite so simple. I deal with many of the same emotional and psychological issues as other adoptees. Most days, being an adoptee is not what I think about, at least until recently. When I do think about what it means, I experience a range of emotions, which are usually positive. I love my step-father and have a great relationship with him (I only call him “step-father” here for clarity’s sake). When people we have just met say they can see the resemblance between us, we just look at each other and smile. To him, I am his daughter. To me, he is my father. My relationship with my biological father is distant, which is exactly as I want it to be. But, there are days when I cannot help but feel, intellectual reasoning aside, hurt, betrayed, and jealous that my biological father essentially gave me up in exchange for forgiveness of debt and the prospect of never having to support me in the future. In short, he gave me up for money. I also think about other aspects where my status as adoptee effects my interactions or conversations with others. For instance, when talking about my family (or in this case, writing) trying to use the right words to describe family members is tricky, since there are so many nuances attached to the traditional words. For example, I do not like to refer to my biological father as “my father” because, to me, he has not been a father. But then, referring to him as “biological father” in conversation often leads whoever I am talking with to believe that I have not had and do not have contact with him. Also, like other adoptees (or anyone else, for that matter), I often question who I am as a person and who I am becoming. If I look at just my step-father and biological father, and not at any of the rest of their respective families, I would prefer to be related to my step-father. But, I am very happy to be related to other members of my biological father’s family. For my (completely biased) reasons, in the Nature vs. Nurture argument, I am a strong advocate for the “It’s Both” answer!
On the one hand, everyone is genetically hard wired with certain traits, a history and connection to genealogy and family. I have a medical history from my paternal side, which, though not terrific, I am at least glad to know. These genetic ties are important to anyone, and they help us define who we are by helping us know where we come from. On the other hand, I know I would be a very different person today had I not had a lifetime of influence from my step-father. He and my mother taught me right from wrong and showed me what it is to have a strong work ethic and a strong faith. They taught me to always strive to do the best I can possibly do no matter what the obstacles. We have been financially stable, and therefore I have been very blessed to have had opportunities to travel and have received an excellent education. But it is exactly the fact that I can write about all of this that makes me feel just “sort of” adopted—I know all of my story, or at least have access to it—other adoptees cannot say the same thing.
In class, we have recently discussed sealed records, and the struggle some adoptees have in trying to find out who their birth families are, and where they come from. Every adoptee is different—some do not care, and others are consumed with a longing that will not be satisfied until they find out. Perhaps it is the difference in this aspect of the adoptee experience that makes me feel “sort of” adopted? When I was adopted, I was twelve. I had relationships with all of my parents. I knew who I was and to whom I was related. Thanks to a few members on each side of my family, our knowledge of parts of our family trees is fairly extensive. Also, six or eight weeks ago, I asked my mother to send me the file she kept of all the documentation for the adoption, and she did. I did not have to go to a state office and request it. I did not have to go to court to show good cause as to why I should be allowed to see my birth certificate, let alone a fairly compete file of the entire process. She sent it to me the week I asked. I was excited and curious—what would I learn that I did not know or remember from experiencing the process as a child? And yet I only read the contents a few days ago. But why? I asked myself, “You know most of your story already! What could you possibly be worried about?” Well, I was worried that reading through it would stir up as of yet unprocessed feelings. I was scared I would learn something new that would be painful. Perhaps they had not told me something then because they had thought I was too young. However, other than learning a few new minor details, and being reminded of things I had forgotten about the process itself, the information was the same. Emotionally, I seem unchanged as compared to how I was before I read the file. Mostly, I just feel lucky that I have the opportunity. I am not kept awake at night wondering about a family I have never met. I am not having to fight a legal system just to learn about myself. I am lucky to have my memories, my knowledge of my family, of what happened, and to have access to my records.
So, yes. I am adopted. I am an adoptee. My experience has been different from that of other adoptees, but that does not mean that I should discount, belittle, or try to qualify how I feel. Psychologically and emotionally, my experiences are very similar to other adoptees. What my experience lacks is not the emotional roller coaster, or the struggles with identity as to who I am going to be, but the mystery of whom and where I come from. It may be a big difference, or not, but that difference should not negate or cause doubt as to the validity or reality of my experience or feelings as compared to those of someone else. So, where does that leave me? “Oh, you’re adopted? So am I.”